Even Caldwell, father of the theory of a distinct Tamil language, did not speak of a separate Tamil people in ethnic terms. It requires modern Indian ‘intellectuals’ to invent such a people. It is infuriating. And, it cannot be helped. That is stuff which our public discourse is made of.
The theory of Tamil being a non-Sanskritic language is open to question. Indeed, the ‘discipline’ of philology itself is based on fragile foundations. For, in terms of that ‘discipline’ itself, almost all language groups, with the possible exception of the Semitic ones, are connected with each other.
But let us put that aside and accept that Tamil root sounds are different from those of the Vedic Sanskrita. What follows? Precious little for the obvious reason that Tamil language and culture in the most comprehensive sense of the term have developed in an intimate interaction with influences which may be said to have emanated from the north; even if we disregard the belief that Agastya, one of the great Vedic rishis, was the creator of the Tamil language, we cannot dismiss the Buddhist and Jain presence in Tamil land from fourth century BC onwards. If there ever existed a pre-Buddhist cultural tradition there, it is not traceable.
Whatever other problems we face in respect of our unity, multi-culturalism is not one of them. India is not multi-cultural in a fundamental sense of the term. Except the Persian-speaking upper crust in and around Muslim courts, even Muslims, especially in the countryside, functioned more or less within the orbit of Hindu culture till the 18th century. Indeed, it is precisely because this was the case that Shah Waliullah in the 18th and Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi in the 19th century launched revivalist movements intended to purge Indian Islam of Hindu influence.
Urdu was at once an expression of this search for an Islamic identity and an instrument for its promotion. It played a critical role in the shaping of events which culminated in partition in 1947.
Hindu-Muslim riots in independent India continue to be discussed as if they are a continuation of those before Partition. This is at best only partly true. Riots before Partition were part of a large power struggle even if the predominantly Hindu leadership of the Indian National Congress did not recognise them as such. As the time for British departure drew close, the post-Mughal stalemate had to end.
It could end only in favour of Hindus, as explained in previous articles in this space. The Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland in 1940 was itself an indirect admission of that reality.
The presence of a large Muslim community in independent India does not detract from the country’s cultural unity. On the contrary, this presence serves as a foil to that unity. But since that unity has been characterized by great diversities, it poses problems which is what should engage our attention.
The British doubtless unified India as it had not been unified ever before- the countrywide rail-road network, one system of administration and justice, one type of education which produced an all-India secular intelligentsia which, if we exclude the Muslims for the present, spoke one language and cherished, broadly, one set of aspirations. On these foundations rested the British bureaucratic centralized state.
This state fulfilled an age-old Indian need since its absence had made it possible for foreigners to conquer this country. But it suffered from a serious weakness. It was an imposition and as such it was not a nation-state which must by definition be informed by a distinct culture.
Without the centralized state the British established we could not, it must be admitted, have undertaken the task of building a nation.
For such a state alone could have produced an all-India secular intelligentsia as distinct from the religious-cultural agency which India has always possessed in its rishis and sadhus; such an intelligentsia alone could have conducted an all-India freedom movement capable of inheriting the state of the British creation and converting it into a nation-state.
In view of the conduct of Muslim leaders from 1905, when they demanded separate electorate, till 1947, when they secured Partition, Muslims have been seen by many Hindu intellectuals as the main obstacle in the path of the nation-state. But a closer examination should help us appreciate that Muslim intransigence also served a useful purpose during the freedom struggle.
It not only diverted attention from the confederal nature of Hindu society but also helped the central leadership headed by Mahatma Gandhi keep in check self-assertion by local elites. Anti-Brahmin movements arose, partly as a result of British manipulation, in Madras and Bombay presidencies but they did not assume unmanageable proportions.
Since the leadership of the freedom movement had to be substantially Brahmin in view of the fact that they had been the quickest and best-equipped (in view of their literary tradition) to take advantage of the British education system, the disruptive potentiality of the anti-Brahmin movements cannot be exaggerated. And, though it cannot be established that the behavior of Muslim leaders helped retard their growth, it is a logical inference. Anti-imperialism was an effective antidote to anti-Brahmanism. But it might not have sufficed.
Be that as it may, however, while the direct challenge to national unity in independent India has been confined to border areas and thus capable of being coped with, we cannot be complacent regarding the future in view of the turbulence Indian polity has experienced since 1967 when the Congress found itself voted out of office in all north Indian states. There would have been no cause for concern if an alternative had arisen. But it has not. The BJP is struggling to fill the vacuum.
Our commentators, like their counterparts the world over, have short memories. So they were not embarrassed when after years of advocacy of decentralisation and transfer of power to states, they demanded the dismissal of BJP governments in four states just because one of them had failed, for reasons beyond its control, to protect a bitterly disputed structure. But this is not merely a case of schizophrenia and/or of expediency. It also speaks of the Indian socio-political reality. It cannot be reduced to a choice between centralization and decentralization.
That the Hindu society is fragmented deeply is another myth. It could not have sustained a political order if it was not only at the level of the Centre but also of the states, many of which are larger than a majority of UN members. Only the politically innocent can believe that democracy can do anything more than help political actors negotiate what Mao Zedong called non-antagonistic contradictions; or to put it in Nehru’s words, it can only help them cope with diversities informed by the principles of unity.
But the Indian society is also still not homogenous enough to enable government to function effectively even in states. While the trend has clearly been in that direction, the speed has been rather slow, partly because the rate of economic growth has been low and partly because the economy has been sought to be fragmented by the state in the name of socialism. Clearly, socialism, as practiced by our policy makers, has not been a factor for national integration though it has invested enormous powers in the Union government.
Society and culture, it need hardly be said, are inter-linked. Social changes brought about by secular forces are duly reflected in culture in course of time. That has been happening in the case of Hinduism. It is not being Semitised and it cannot be Semitised as a result of a deliberate design on the part of some individuals or groups. But from being a confederation of ways of life, it has had to move towards being a federation. To put it differently, the small society has had to give way to larger ones as small economies and polities have had to give way to larger ones.
Only a secular and modern intelligentsia could have presided over these changes. The task would have been beyond the reach of traditional elites. That is the true significance of secularism. It may be called the midwife of Hindu nationalism.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 16 February 1993